What Happens in the Brain When We Misremember

Simon Makin in Scientific American:

MemeMost people think of memory as a faithful, if incomplete, recording of the past—a kind of multimedia storehouse of experiences. But psychologists, neuroscientists and lawyers know better. Eyewitness testimony, for instance, is now known to be notoriously unreliable. This is because memory is not just about retrieving stored information. Our minds normally construct memories using a blend of remembered experiences and knowledge about the world. Our memories can be frazzled, though, by new experiences that end up tangling the past and the present.

The sometimes dire consequences of misremembering have led psychologists to try to discover the underlying causes of faulty memories—and a new study has just found a key site in the brain whose functioning gives insight into both the underpinnings of memory and why we misremember things. The research builds on the DRM task—a way of eliciting false memories that was discovered decades ago. The task combines the last initials of three researchers: James Deese first described the psychological illusion in 1959, but it wasn't until Henry Roediger and Kathleen McDermott linked it to false memory in 1995 that it became widely used in psychological experiments. During the task, participants are presented with a list of words, such as “snow,” “ice,” “winter” and “warm,” which are all related to another “lure” word (in this case “cold”) that is never presented. After some delay, participants must recall as many words from the list as they can, and people frequently report clearly remembering seeing the lure word.

More here.